JACKSONVILLE — Each time retired teacher Larry Smith leads a group of school kids on a mining history hike in the Jacksonville Woodlands, he's peppered with the same question.

JACKSONVILLE — Each time retired teacher Larry Smith leads a group of school kids on a mining history hike in the Jacksonville Woodlands, he's peppered with the same question.

"They all want to know, 'Are we going to see the buried car?' " Smith says. "I don't know what it is, but they're fascinated with it."

The buried car is actually an early 1950s GMC pickup body dumped into an abandoned mine shaft that 1930s gold miners dug in Rich Gulch hoping to strike it big.

Its location at the intersection of the woodlands' Rich Gulch and Petard trails makes it perhaps the most accessible and most viewed of the so-called "glory holes" that help tell the story of Depression gold mining in the Jacksonville area.

But school groups and the hundreds of hikers, runners and mountain bikers who pass this glory hole every year will see a different shaft than ever before.

Federal work crews systematically filling in dangerous mine shafts and holes like this have erected a heavy metal gate over the hole to keep people, pets and even deer from falling in.

They also covered it with metal mesh that allows visitors to stand over the hole to see down at an unprecedented angle, but perhaps see less at times, thanks to new shadows.

The hole with the buried truck now has one heck of a fortified steel lid.

"Wow," says Smith when he first lays eyes on the gate. "It's certainly overkill. That thing's going to be here longer than the hole."

But the federal Bureau of Land Management, which shares ownership of the hole with the city of Jacksonville, sees it as the best solution to alleviating a potential hazard while still keeping intact its place in history.

Rich Gulch, which is more rich from mining history than from glory-hole hauls themselves, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The truck, though junk, is a protected antiquity.

That makes filling in the hole illegal, leaving the heavy gate as the best solution, BLM spokesman Jim Whittington says.

"The gate fit and it also serves as a nice interpretive tool," Whittington says.

This glory hole is feature No. 116 out of the 1,986 abandoned mining features identified in the BLM's Medford District under the national Abandoned Mine Lands program that seeks out and removes hazardous remnants of mining on federal lands.

They range from abandoned shafts or mine entrances, called adits, as well as abandoned mining equipment and glory holes like those that pockmark Rich Gulch. In all, more than 76,600 such sites have been identified on BLM lands nationwide, and more will be added as they are discovered, Whittington says.

Since work began on the Medford District in 2009, crews have filled eight shafts and one adit with dirt, filled 77 shafts and five adits with foam that hardens and is covered with dirt, and has gated two shafts and 23 adits.

The features are tackled based on a national prioritized ranking that factors in safety risk, proximity to high-use areas, road access and other criteria.

The Rich Gulch glory hole was rated as a high priority, leading to the recent gate construction by a U.S. Forest Service enterprise team working for the BLM, Whittington says.

BLM records show this particular glory hole at one time was 80 feet deep. But it apparently had filled in to about 35 feet when Smith's son, Brian, tied a rope to an adjacent tree and lowered himself into the hole as a teenager nearly 30 years ago.

That's when he discovered the truck shell was a GMC, one of seven vehicles former landowner Harry Blue buried on his property in the late 1950s and '60s, says Smith, executive director of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association, which bought the land and turned it over to the city.

Now, Jacksonville city limits runs through the hole, making it 80 percent on BLM land and 20 percent within the city, Smith says.

The hole, and the truck, have been a well-visited oddity that got on the BLM's safety radar when a dog fell in and had to be rescued in 2003, Smith says. It was fenced off crudely in 2005, but that didn't keep a blacktail fawn from falling in a year later.

Smith has stood around the hole with school kids dozens of times, but it wasn't until Tuesday that he ever hovered above it.

"This is interesting," Smith says, on his hands and knees peering through the metal mesh. "If the lighting's right, this may actually be an improvement."

The soldered metal bars are fashioned in a standard form of a "bat gate," a gate over a mine shaft that restricts access but lets bats fly in and out unobstructed, Whittington says.

No bats use this glory hole, so the metal mesh was added for increased protection, Whittington says.

Most of these protected features, as well as those not yet altered, have their GPS coordinates listed. That proves helpful to wildland firefighters who can know where these hidden danger spots are when entering these lands to fight wildfires, Whittington says.

"This has already paid for itself 100 times in safety," Whittington says.

After a few minutes standing on the gate, Smith warms to its presence. Instead of kids standing around the hole, kicking dirt down the shaft as they crane their necks to see the fabled truck, they could stand on the gate and gaze directly down.

"The next time I take a group of kids here, I'll be anxious to hear what they think," Smith says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.